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Mesopotamian Art and Artifacts – Virtual Tour

Tour of Mesopotamian Art

Mesopotamian Art and Artifacts – Virtual Tour

Mesopotamian Art starts from early hunter-gatherer societies in the 8th millennium BC, followed by the Bronze Age cultures of the Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, and Assyrian empires.

These empires were later replaced in the Iron Age by the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian empires and then by the Persian Empire.

Mesopotamian art survives in several forms, including Cylinder seals, which have survived in large numbers, providing detailed scenes despite their small size.

Mesopotamia is also one of the cradles of civilization, which brought significant cultural developments, including the oldest examples of writing.

A Virtual Tour of Mesopotamian Art and Artifact

Highlights Tour of Mesopotamian Art and Artifact

Gudea, Prince of Lagash

Gudea, Prince of Lagash was the political and religious governor of Lagash, in Southern Mesopotamia, one of the oldest Sumerian cities.

This statue was discovered as two pieces, twenty-six years apart. Archaeologists found the head in 1877, then the body was found in 1903.

Many figures of Gudea, both standing and seated, have been discovered; however, none of them was complete. Bodies without heads have been found, and the heads with missing bodies.

Archaeologists succeeded in assembling the two fragments of this statue, resulting in the first and only complete representation of Gudea. The engraved inscription on the rob identified the subject as Gudea of Lagash.

Sumerian Standing Male Worshiper

This “Standing Male Worshiper” carved from gypsum alabaster is shown with clasped hands and a wide-eyed gaze.

It was placed in a temple and dedicated to a Sumerian god, to pray perpetually on behalf of the person it represented.

This statue is one of twelve figures known collectively as the “Tell Asmar Hoard” with artifacts dating back to 2900–2550 BC.

The hoard was discovered in 1933 at Eshnunna in eastern Iraq. It is historically unique because it is one of a few definitive examples of the abstract style of Early Dynastic temple sculpture.

Gilgamesh Flood Tablet

The Gilgamesh Flood Tablet contains the flood story from the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is an epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia that is often regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature.

The flood story was added to the Gilgamesh Epic utilized surviving Babylonian deluge stories from older Sumerian poems which inspired the flood myth.

Gilgamesh’s reign is believed to have been about 2700 BCE, shortly before the earliest known written stories. The earliest Sumerian Gilgamesh poems date from 2100–2000 BCE.

One of these poems mentions Gilgamesh’s journey to meet the flood hero, as well as a short version of the flood story.

The flood story was included because, in it, the flood hero is granted immortality by the gods, and that fits the immortality theme of the epic.

Gilgamesh, having failed to discover the secret of eternal life, returns to Uruk, where the sight of its massive walls inspires him to praise this enduring work of mortal men.

The moral is that mortals can achieve immortality through lasting works of civilization and culture.

Ishtar Gate

The Ishtar Gate was a passageway to the inner city of Babylon, constructed by order of King Nebuchadnezzar II in about 575 BCE.

The gate was integral to the ancient Walls of Babylon and was considered one of the original Seven Wonders of the World.

When a Greek poet of the 2nd Century BC compiled the seven wonders of the ancient world, only one city could claim two world wonders, and that was Babylon.

Babylon was the home of the Hanging Gardens and Babylon’s city wall with Ishtar Gate.

Dedicated to the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, the gate was constructed using glazed brick with alternating rows of bas-reliefs of dragons and bulls, symbolizing the gods Marduk and Adad. 

Cyrus Cylinder

The Cyrus Cylinder is an ancient clay cylinder, from the 6th century BC, on which is written a declaration in cuneiform script in the name of Persia’s King Cyrus the Great.

It describes the king’s capture of Babylon in 539 BC and how he restored temples in major cities and returned deported people to their homes.

The text on the Cylinder praises Cyrus for his peaceful and just rule, and due to these precepts, this historical object has been claimed to be an early version of ‘charter of human right.’

Lion Hunting Scene – 750 BC

This Lion Hunting Scene from about 750 BC was created in the Kingdom of Sam’ al, which was in the southern and eastern regions of modern-day Turkey.

This work is of provincial quality from one of the minor cities. The relief is comparable to the reliefs of the nearby Sam’ al but not of the same quality.

The proportions and details of the people and equipment, the wagon arming, the horse armor, the drawstring, the internal drawing of the lion, and the perspective do not match the quality of sculpture relief from the imperial cities.

Lion Hunt Relief from Nimrud

This Lion Hunt Relief came from a wing of Northwest Palace of the Royal Residence of King Ashurbanipal in Nimrud, present-day Iraq.

The relief shows the king, standing on a light hunting chariot, which is guided by a charioteer and pulled three horses. Three arrows have hit the lion.

The King once again aims an arrow at the lion. The lion has turned its head back and seems to roar its attacker in pain.

The royal lion hunt is a symbol of the King overcoming the dangers and challenges to the Assyrian state by its ruler.

Temple of Ashur Water Basin

This Water Basin from 700 BC was carved from one monolithic block but was discovered completely fragmented in one of the courtyards of the Temple of Assur.

It was reconstructed using many of its original components and reliefs. It was a solid basalt tub from one of the gardens outside the Temple of Ishtar at Assur.

The Water Basin was destroyed during the Fall of Assur in 614 BC when the first city and the old capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire fell to Median forces.

The sack of the city that followed the fall utterly destroyed the city. Assur would never recover from the destruction. Thus this water basin lasted less than 100 years.

Victory Stele of Esarhaddon

The Victory Stele of Esarhaddon commemorates the return home of Esarhaddon, after his army’s battle and victory over Pharaoh Taharqa in ancient northern Egypt in 671 BC.

Before this victory, Esarhaddon had previously been repulsed by Taharqa’s forces in their first battle of 674 BC during his first foray into the Levant.

The second battle of 671 BC saw Taharqa retreat with his army to Memphis. Memphis was taken by Esarhaddon, forcing Taharqa to flee to Kush. After his victory, Esarhaddon “slaughtered the villagers and erected piles of their heads.”

The Lion Hunt

“The Lion Hunt” is a low relief sculpture showing the Royal Lion Hunt of King Ashurbanipal with his royal entourage, together with horses, dogs on leashes, and chariots.

The sculpture shows captured lions and lionesses being released from cages to do battle with the King. The Lion Hunt is one of the most captivating works of art from antiquity.

The suffering lions are depicted as brave and defiant, but they are eventually defeated with arrows, spears, and swords and are shown in individual suffering and dying in agony.

The ancient artist expertly captured the lions in motion depicting each animal as a unique individual. This intricate artistry was created over 2,500 years ago with primitive tools, and it is a masterpiece of Assyrian art.

Royal Game of Ur

The Royal Game of Ur is an ancient game represented by two game boards found in the Royal Tombs of Ur in Iraq and date from before 2,600 BC.

The rules of the game are known based on the discovery of clay cuneiform tablets from Babylonian dating from 177–176 BC. The rules show that it was a form of a racing game like the present-day backgammon.

The Royal Game of Ur was played with two sets of seven markers. One black and one white, and some tetrahedral dice which are composed of four triangular faces.

Unlike modern dice, with six sides, this game had tetrahedral dice with four faces.

Stela of Shamshi-Adad V

The Stela of Shamshi-Adad V is a massive round-topped white limestone monolith that portrays the Assyrian King worshipping his gods.

The monarch is shown wearing a conical hat, and full beard with his right hand extended snapping his fingers, and his left hand holding a mace, his symbol of royal authority. 

A significant amount of cuneiform text  covers the sides of the stela, recording the king’s military campaigns

Head of a Beardless Royal Attendant – Eunuch

This relief fragment shows the head of a beardless male royal attendant, possibly a Eunuch. The attendant is depicted with a hairstyle typical for an Assyrian courtier and with a large earring.

Similar earrings with three projecting studs have been discovered in the royal tombs at Nimrud, where they are made of gold and set with colorful stones.

Eunuchs played a significant role in the Assyrian court and administration and were depicted in the reliefs that decorated the palace.

This fragment comes from a large scene showing a group of beardless courtiers carrying vessels and furniture for a ceremony. As the king’s servants, they were well dressed, indicating their high status within the Assyrian court.

Human-Headed Winged Bull (Lamassu)

This Human-Headed Winged Bull is a Lamassu, which is an Assyrian protective deity, often depicted as having a human head, the body of a bull or a lion, and bird wings.

The horned cap attests to its divinity, and the motif of a winged animal with a human head is common to the Near East. The first distinct Lamassu motif appeared in Assyria as a symbol of power.

The sculptor of this Human-Headed Winged Bull gave this guardian figure five legs so that they seem to be firmly standing when viewed from the front but striding forward when seen from the side.

Lamassu protected and supported essential doorways in Assyrian palaces. This sculpture is one of a pair of lamassu that was placed at the entrance of a prominent palace.

Law Code of Hammurabi

The “Law Code of Hammurabi” is a Stele that was erected by the King of Babylon in the 18th century B.C. It is a work of art, it is history, and it is literature. It is a complete law code from Antiquity that pre-dates Biblical laws.

A stele is a vertical stone monument or marker inscribed with text or with relief carving. This particular example, which is nearly 4,000 years old, looks like the shape of a huge index finger with a nail and imperfect symmetry.

The Law Code of Hammurabi stele is one of the oldest deciphered writings of significant length to be discovered. The Law Code of Hammurabi refers to a set of 282 rules or laws enacted by the Babylonian King Hammurabi, who reigned 1792-1750 B.C

Victory Stele of Naram-Sin

The Victory Stele of Naram-Sin dates to about 2250 BC, to the time of the Akkadian Empire.

The relief depicts King Naram-Sin leading the Akkadian army to victory over the Lullubi, a mountain people from the Zagros Mountains.

It shows the King crossing the steep slopes into enemy territory. On the left are the disciplined imperial forces marching in rank over the disordered defenders that lay broken and defeated.

King Naram-Sin is shown as the most important figure as he is towering above his enemy and his troops, as all eyes gaze up toward him.

The weak opposing forces are shown being thrown from the mountainside, impaled by spears, fleeing and begging for mercy as well as being trampled underfoot by the King.

Statue of Ebih-Il

This statue depicts the figure of a praying man seated on a wicker seat with hands clasped against his chest in devotion to his deity.

The inscription in proto-cuneiform on the rear, which identifies the work, reads: “Statue of Ebih-Il, the superintendent, dedicated to Ishtar Virile.”

Ebih-Il was a superintendent of the ancient city-state of Mari in modern-day eastern Syria. The statue was discovered at the Temple of Ishtar in Mari during excavations. It is made of gypsum, with inlays of schist, shells, and lapis lazuli.

The man’s head is shaved. His long beard is composed of vertical curls and with holes drilled. The gaps in the beard had formerly been inlaid with another material that is now lost.

Standard of Ur

The Standard of Ur is a mosaic of shells, red limestone and lapis lazuli inlaid over a hollow wooden box. It was discovered in the 1920s in a royal tomb at the ancient city of Ur (modern-day Iraq) and is about 4,600 years old.

The standard was constructed to depict scenes of “War” on one side and “Peace” on the other side using elaborately inlaid mosaics. It was next to the skeleton of a ritually sacrificed man who may have been its bearer. However, its original real purpose remains enigmatic.

The present form of this “Standard of Ur” is a reconstruction, presenting the best guess of its original appearance. The inlaid mosaic panels cover each long side of the Standard.

Each side offers a series of scenes displayed in three registers, upper, middle, and bottom. The two mosaics have been dubbed “War” and “Peace” for their subject matter, respectively, a representation of a military campaign and scenes from a banquet.

Ram in a Thicket

This statue of a “Ram in a Thicket” is one of pair of figures excavated at the site of Ancient Ur, in southern Iraq, and which date back to about 2600 BC.

This one is exhibited at the British Museum in London, and the other is at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia. The figures represent a large goat standing upright with its front hooves resting on the branches of a small tree.

It is thought that the two figures were created to face each other. Also, the tubes going up from their shoulders were used to support a bowl or similar object.

The sculpture had a wooden core that had been finely carved for the face and legs. The ram’s head and legs are layered in gold leaf, which had been hammered against the wood and stuck to it with a thin layer of bitumen.

The ears are copper, which are now green due to the natural tarnish. The horns and the fleece on its shoulders are of lapis lazuli, and the body’s fleece is made of shell, attached to a thicker coat of bitumen.

The figure’s genitals are gold, while its belly was a silver plate, now oxidized beyond restoration.

Queen of the Night (Burney Relief)

The “Queen of the Night “relief is a Mesopotamian terracotta plaque in high relief from about the 19th century BCE, depicting a winged goddess figure with bird’s talons, flanked by owls, and perched upon two lions.

The high relief and large size suggest that it was used as a cult image, however, whether it represents Ishtar or Ereshkigal is under debate.

This unique plaque is larger than the many mass-produced terracotta plaques of devotional items, which were excavated in the house ruins of the Isin-Larsa and Old Babylonian periods.

The relief is a fired clay plaque. It was molded with subsequent modeling of details. The details added include the rod-and-ring symbols, the curls of hair, and the eyes of the owls.

The relief was then polished, and further details were incised with a pointed tool. It is also believed that the surface would have been smoothed with ochre paint. Traces of red pigment remain on the figure’s body.

Tell al-‘Ubaid Copper Lintel

The “Tell al-‘Ubaid Lintel” is a large copper panel found in 1919, at the ancient Sumerian city of Tell al-‘Ubaid in southern Iraq.

This frieze is one of the most massive metal sculptures to survive from ancient Mesopotamia. The central figure shows the lion-headed eagle, called “Imdugud,” which is the symbol of the god Ningirsu, an ancient Mesopotamian god.

Flanking either side of the god are two stags. The relief has also been called the “Imdugud Relief.”

It was beaten out of a substantial piece of copper and stands apart from the background. For an object of this size to survive is unusual as most metal artifacts were melted down for their bullion value in antiquity.

Ancient Sumerian Male Worshipper

This Ancient Sumerian calcite-alabaster figurine of a male worshipper was created sometime in 2300 BC. The shaven head is a sign of ritual purity, which may also identify this figure as a priest.

A partly preserved inscription on the right shoulder states that he prays to Ninshubur. Ninshubur was a vassal and friend of the goddess Inanna in Sumerian mythology; her name means “Queen of the East” in ancient Sumerian.

Much like Iris or Hermes in later Greek mythology, Ninshubur served as a messenger to the other gods.

Ninshubur was an essential figure in ancient Sumerian mythology, and she played an integral role in several myths involving her mistress, the goddess, Inanna.

Ninshubur helped Inanna fight Enki’s demons after Inanna’s theft of the sacred me. Later, when Inanna became trapped in the Underworld, it was Ninshubur who pleaded with Enki for her mistress’s release.

Sumerian Cone or Clay Nail

This Ancient Sumerian calcite-alabaster figurine of a male worshipper was created sometime in 2300 BC. The shaven head is a sign of ritual purity, which may also identify this figure as a priest.

A partly preserved inscription on the right shoulder states that he prays to Ninshubur. Ninshubur was a vassal and friend of the goddess Inanna in Sumerian mythology; her name means “Queen of the East” in ancient Sumerian.

Much like Iris or Hermes in later Greek mythology, Ninshubur served as a messenger to the other gods.

Ninshubur was an essential figure in ancient Sumerian mythology, and she played an integral role in several myths involving her mistress, the goddess, Inanna.

Ninshubur helped Inanna fight Enki’s demons after Inanna’s theft of the sacred me. Later, when Inanna became trapped in the Underworld, it was Ninshubur who pleaded with Enki for her mistress’s release.

Statue of Gudea

Gudea was the political and religious governor of Lagash, one of the oldest Sumerian cities in Ancient Mesopotamia. Gudea ruled between 2144 – 2124 BC, and about twenty-seven statues of Gudea have been found. These 4,000-year-old statues show a very advanced level of craftsmanship for the time.

Also, more than 2,400 inscriptions have been found that mention his name and describe his 20-year campaign of city improvements, which included new temples and irrigation canals. He was also a patron of the arts. Many statues of Gudea, both seated and standing, can be found in museums across the world.

Sumerian Proverbs

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“A dog which is played with turns into a puppy.”

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“After becoming a thief, one becomes an outcast.”

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“Eat no fat, and you will not have blood in your excrement.”

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“An unjust heir who does not support a wife, who does not support a child, has no cause for celebration.”

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“A good word is a friend of numerous men.”

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“As long as you live, you should not increase evil by telling lies.”

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“Control the dog, but love the puppy!”

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“A troubled mind makes you sick.”

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“Don’t pick things ahead of time; some bear fruit later.”

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“A slave entrusted with a burial will be negligent.”

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“Good fortune [calls for] organization and wisdom.”

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“Who possesses much silver may be happy;
who possesses much barley may be glad;
but he who has nothing at all may sleep.”

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Babylonian Proverbs

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“A hostile act you shall not perform, that fear of vengeance shall not consume you.”

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“The life of day before yesterday has departed today.”

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“You shall not do evil, that life eternal you may obtain.”

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“Upon a glad heart, oil is poured out of which no one knows.”

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“Friendship is for the day of trouble, posterity for the future.”

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“If you go and take the field of an enemy, the enemy will come and take your field.”

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“Writing is the mother of eloquence and the father of artists.”

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“When you see the gain of the fear of God, exalt God and bless the king.”

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“The strong live by their own wages; the weak by the wages of their children.”

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Mesopotamia Art History Overview

Ancient Mesopotamia 101

Mesopotamian Art

History of Sumer Mesopotamia – 3,000 years of Sumerian history

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“Give me!” is what the king says.”
– Sumerian Proverb

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Photo Credit: JOM

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